“It Took A Lot To Get This Book Out Into The World”: Talking With Joe Casey About Jesusfreak

by Oliver MacNamee

Jesus is having something of a revival in the world of comics these days with Fox News probably not even knowing where to turn their outrage next. Well, don’t look now but writer Joe Casey and artist Benjamin Marra are bringing you a very different kind of Jesus than the ones you’ll be seeing next time you head on down to church. This one is a kung-fu master who’s not afraid to hold back should he need to defend himself, or others. Jesusfreak is a fascinating, very original until story of the informative years in Jesus’s life before he took up his life on the road and a journey that would eventually lead him to his mortal death on the cross. And it’s out this week from Image Comics. I was keen to question Joe on the book, his influences, and more having been enthralled by this original take on a familiar friend.

Olly MacNamee: I must admit, Joe, having read Jesusfreak I was surprised at how respectful this book is to the core story of Jesus. But with kung-fu and monsters. Something FOX seemed either unable to grasp, or failed to read before posting commentary recently.

Joe Casey: Well, y’know…Why bother actually reading something when you can simply use its existence to promote your own agenda? That’s par for the course, these days. We don’t exactly live in a culture that knows how to deal with nuance. I’m not even sure how “respectful” we are, but our main area of interest was in simultaneously achieving both historical and emotional accuracy.

OM: It fascinates me that mythologies – once considered religions as legitimate as modern religions –  can be added to, mixed up and regurgitated in various new and original ways, but modern Judeo-Christian religious texts, we are told, are set in stone and not to be messed with. However I see your Jesusfreak as an interesting re-mix of Jesus story, in the same vein as any other myth, legend and fairy tales that have developed over the centuries from retelling and revising. Fair comment?

JC: I actually thought we were telling an “untold tale”, so to speak. In terms of the mythology of Jesus, we’re told of his birth and then we jump right to a few years before his death. If he existed at all, there are several years there which are, as they say, undocumented and unaccounted for. Back in the day, when I first thought of this project, I remembered the tagline from the old Superboy comic — “The adventures of Superman when he was a boy” — and had the notion to apply that to Jesus’ “lost years”. His own personal awakening (for lack of a better term) holds within it a lot of inherent drama. Mix that with the times he was (supposedly) living in and I felt like I had everything I needed to tell a good, entertaining story. Which was always the goal, btw.

OM: As for these influences, they’re very interesting choices and hearken back to a more experimental time in American Comics. You’ve readily mention you love for Gene Day, Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy’s work on such ‘exploitation’ comics as Masters of Kung-Fu, and it’s an influence you’ve brought to bear on your own interpretation of Jesus. Why is that?

JC: Marra and I just love those comics (and those creators). It’s true that the 1970’s was a very experimental time in mainstream comics, and sometimes the experiment ended in failure. But even in those failures, there was interesting work being done. Not to mention subversive work. These were still kids’ comics, after all. For me, personally, I’m a freak for genre-splicing (or, in this case, aesthetic-splicing)…so taking what is ostensibly historical fiction and merging it with a certain type of exploitation comic made all the sense in the world.

OM: Benjamin Marra certainly captures the aesthetics of these 1970’s pulpy comics and effectively transports it back to the Middle East of the Biblical era. This isn’t you mom and pop’s Jesus now is he?

JC: No, especially when “mom and pop’s” Jesus was always inexplicably depicted as Caucasian. Ours is culturally and ethnically accurate. I’m sure the same talking heads on Fox & Friends would be just as outraged by the fact that there are no white people in our book. Why would there be? That alone might be tough for some folks to swallow. But that’s their problem, not ours.

OM: As well as wearing its comic book credentials as a badge of honour, it’s also a sweaty, bloody book akin to the exploitation movies of the 70’s. Matta’s Jesus Christ looks more like he’d be more at home in a Spaghetti Western, or on the melting pot streets of New York as one of The Warriors. Where did you get the initial idea that was the aesthetic you were going for?

JC: Originally, the approach was going to be a lot more serious. By that, I mean I was going to tell the story in a much more straightforward way. No embellishment, just the “facts”. But once I’d seen Marra’s work, and then collaborated with him on a much shorter piece, the idea that we could apply our mutual love of that kind of exploitation material to Jesusfreak just made the whole thing click for me.

OM: Your depiction of Jesus seems to portray him as spiritually innocent; naive to his true origins and suffering from visions  he cannot comprehend. He seem to be living in denial as a result and struggling with his true self. It seem to be in one part a homage to the aforementioned comics of the Bronze Age, but also a story of self-discovery through the tests and trials he faces along the way.

JC: There’s definitely a coming-of-age quality to this story that was always part of it. It’s basically an origin story, which is something that comic books do very well. What was important to both Marra and myself was that the book worked on multiple levels. The magical realism aspect of it had to work outside of any notion of a Supreme Being or whatever you want to call it when dealing with the concept of God. So we pushed it a little into psychedelic territory and that seemed to do the trick. On a purely human level, it is absolutely a journey of self-actualization. We want readers to sympathize with our main character, as you always hope happens in a good, dramatic story. The fact that our main character is named Jesus is just another level.

OM: Are there plans for further volumes? It feels as though you’ve only just touched the surface of this new and original take on Jesus’s life story.

JC: It took a lot to get this book out in the world. There’s certainly more story to tell. It’ll probably come down to both desire and scheduling if we ever return to it. Let’s see how this one does.

Jesusfreak is available now from Image Comics and digitally on the usual platforms.

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